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Public Court Record Access Fee Proposal Met with Skepticism Locally

Gov. Jerry Brown pitches $10 fee to help cash-strapped courts, but critics say public's access to judicial system would be restricted

As California continues to struggle with its chronic budget shortfalls, public court records may soon be going behind a pay wall.

In his new budget blueprint, Gov. Jerry Brown included a $10 search fee to access legal dockets that historically have been free to view. Parties included in each of the court cases would be able to view them free of charge, but the new fee would apply to the general public, businesses and news reporters. Provisions in the proposal also would double the cost of court copies to a dollar per page from 50 cents.

The group behind the proposal is the state Judicial Council, which crafts policy for California courts. Legislators are considering the proposal as part of a trailer bill that would apply to next year’s budget, which begins this summer.

Gary Blair, executive officer of the Santa Barbara County Superior Court, said the proposed revenues from the new fees — estimated at about $30 million annually — amount to “throwing a bucket of water on a house fire” and that it just wasn’t enough money to make a significant change.

“I’m not sure that this will really help,” he told Noozhawk.

There is currently no charge to look up public court records, although there is a charge to make copies.

“I’m not real keen on placing fees on public access just as a matter of principle,” Blair said.

The local Superior Courts Records Office gets thousands of requests to look at files every year, and Blair said the courts have had to reduce hours that clerks work in the records office to save money.

Blair said he’d rather see fees increase in other areas.

For example, in traffic cases, court staff are required to look up the subject’s prior offenses and report them to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which will determine whether traffic school is required or what amount of bail to set if there has been an arrest.

The cost of looking up those offenses currently is only $10, so it would make sense to increase that fee, Blair said.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, conceded that the courts are desperate to find operating resources after years of dramatic cuts. But she expressed concern about limiting access to public records.

Jackson, who started her career as a deputy district attorney and is married to Superior Court Judge George Eskin, said she is acutely aware of the budget situation in the courts.

“We have to look to ways that we can keep courts functioning,” she said.

“We really have to step up to the plate, if there are ways to provide additional resources in a way that wouldn’t affect public access,” she told Noozhawk, later adding that “we want to make sure the public and the media have access to information in an open and transparent way.”

Santa Barbara County’s courts have been touched by state budget cuts already. Earlier this year, the Judicial Council voted to delay for at least a year plans for a new criminal courthouse in Santa Barbara so the funding could be used elsewhere, like California’s general fund.

Jackson said those courthouse improvements are badly needed.

“In that courthouse, the heat’s broken, the plumbing is so bad,” she said.

In terms of the plan, she said, “we’re not talking about a Cadillac (project), we’re just talking about keeping the wheels on so justice can keep moving.”

Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen called the fee proposal “chilling” for public access and accountability.

“We have an open court system in our country and such a fee would obliterate the very idea of open records and transparency,” he said. “It would have a chilling effect on public accountability.

“Our reporters are looking at court records almost daily so it’s not hard to calculate the impact that cost would have on our news coverage. What’s next? An entry fee to attend a public trial?”

Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping ensure public forum rights are protected, said it’s still unclear what record searches will be covered under the new proposal.

The code section being amended pertains to what might be time-consuming searches for records from old, closed cases, but could apply to any routine request, such as those done by beat reporters checking the status of a criminal case.

If that occurs, “that would be catastrophic for the transparency of the administration of justice,” Francke said, even if copy fees aren’t raised.

“The whole fee-jacking idea, which the Administrative Office of the Courts chief justifies as a desperation move to secure survival, is like the courts saying, ‘Yes, the public has a First Amendment right to observe trials and hearings, but from now on you’ll have to buy tickets to get in the courtroom’,” Francke said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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